U.S. Government Begins Safety Study of Self-Driving Cars

A self-driving Ford Focus spotted in Mountain View, Calif., is one of Google’s employee cars currently in testing. (Photo credit: Flickr: Mark Doliner)

Thanks to the folks at Google, self-driving cars are the next technology that will change the world. The average driver may not be ready to turn the wheel over to a robot car, but the U.S. government and many car companies are taking this technology very seriously.

David Strickland, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, believes that, although these cars may not be commonplace on the road for another decade, they would eliminate a huge factor responsible for 90% of traffic deaths — human error.

“We have the chance of saving thousands and thousands of lives as cars in use today are replaced with automated vehicles,” Strickland said.

With NHTSA in the national seat for creating automotive safety standards, the question is, are they ready to re-write the book of the rules of the road to include completely autonomous cars? Strickland would not say while speaking on the topic at a recent industry gathering in Washington.

“Setting such standards would require the government to fundamentally rethink the way it evaluates auto safety,” he said.

This is only a test

What that would involve is testing several cars that can each communicate with each other — which is just what the government is doing in a massive, year-long road test that started this summer in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The road test, conducted by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, uses 3,000 cars, trucks, and buses set up with V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) technology. These vehicles were donated by many of the car companies developing this future technology and include Ford and GM.

A goal of the testing is for regulators to be directly involved in setting industry standards to make sure that each type of technology can communicate with another in an open system.

The companies known to be already testing robotic cars include GM, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, Audi, BMW, Volvo, and Cadillac. But the technology that started this craze began in 2005, when a professor named Sebastian Thrun and his Stanford team won a contest called the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge. The vehicle they created successfully traveled 132 miles across the desert.

Since then, Thrun has headed up a three-year partnership with Google Maps and has driven more than 300,000 miles in its many autonomous vehicles. Google has also been a driver of the government’s involvement and its lobbyists have convinced Florida, Nevada, and California to make self-driving cars legal for testing. Next in line are Hawaii, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Washington, D.C.

Critics have valid points

But as the wonders of the technology are being lauded, others are concerned about the implications of this brave new world. The legal implications of accidents, liability, and integrating self- and non-self drivers on the road, have some legislators worried. Some traffic laws for motor vehicles have been on the books for 100 years, meaning new laws would have to be created from the ground up.

Other naysayers include consumer groups who fear that companies like Google and major auto manufacturers will use data they collect via GPS, radar, and computer vision techniques for marketing purposes.

The biggest hurdle will, of course, be consumer willingness to turn over the wheel to a computer-based system. With technology advancing as fast as the speed of light, we may be ready in another 10 years. One thing is certain — our government has taken the stance of encouraging this behavior to further the cause of safety. So in reality, the road from horseless carriages to driverless vehicles may be much closer than we think.

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